No. 1 question I got all day Thursday: What happened to Baylor at Kansas? Would you believe me if I said I kinda saw this coming? (A possible loss, that is, not anything like the 69-45 final score.)
It’s not because I have Kreskin-like powers or anything. It just seemed like this matchup had the right “formula” for an upset: Baylor came in “down,” while Kansas came in “up.”
Baylor had lost star Danielle Wilson to a knee injury in the previous game against Texas, but still won. The thing is, teams can get an adrenaline rush after they lose a key player during a game. Plus, the players don’t have time to really think about what’s happened while still in the midst of the competition.
But in the next game, after the gravity of the injury has set in, usually is when you see a team struggle with the energy drain of having lost a key player. People may think I am just making an excuse for Baylor, but it’s a legitimate explanation. Remember, players typically are not just teammates, they’re friends.
It takes an emotional toll on everyone to know that their friend is going through a hard time. Then there’s the additional stress of knowing they have to make up for that person’s production on the court. And when someone is having as good a season as Wilson (15.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg) was having, that’s a lot to have to compensate for by others.
I know coaches just do NOT ever like to hear any of these excuses, and I understand why. They are in the business of winning games, and it’s usually against their dispositions anyway to look player performances philosophically.
Instead, it’s just this: We played like garbage, we didn’t defend, we had no energy, nobody took charge, the effort stunk worse than a public outhouse in July, and I’m not talking to the players on the way home. That’s more or less what Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who lost to KU for the first time in 11 meetings, had to say after the game in Lawrence.
Well, she didn’t mention anything about outhouses. I just added that in. I don’t think she’d disagree.
The tepid effort was such that Mulkey sat for almost the entire second half – you know, with that body language that pretty much screamed non-verbally to her players, “OK, if you aren’t bothering to show up, don’t expect me to run up and down and waste my breath.”
But … to assume this is all about Baylor being subpar is wrong. Because a “bad” Baylor team could still beat a lot of teams if they didn’t play well. And Kansas played very well – the best I have seen this group of Jayhawks ever play. I truly believe Kansas would have been a handful for Baylor even if Wilson had been playing.
KU’s core group has been together three seasons, and the players have grown through a lot gut-checks and knockdowns in that time. Anyone who’s watched the Jayhawks the past few years had to smile seeing this group of kids get to have a game like Wednesday’s for their 2009 home finale. They deserved it.
Kansas has had talent over the past few seasons, but so does everybody in the Big 12. The Jayhawks have struggled with point-guard play among other things. And when KU opened this league season with a 72-39 loss at Kansas State, I thought, “Wow, that’s going to be difficult to get over.”
There have been other withering road games since then, with losses at Missouri and Colorado.
But coach Bonnie Henrickson and her assistants kept the team from getting “hangdog” – and I also give the players themselves credit for that. It’s not unusual for players to get weary from disappointment and then start tuning out their coaches. But the Jayhawks haven’t done that.
Henrickson as a coach reminds me of the piano teacher who listens to her pupil murder scales … grits her teeth, and says evenly, “OK, we’re going to try this again.” And then the kid gets a little better but still screws up, and she says, “OK, let’s do it again.” And then the kid gets better and makes fewer mistakes, and she says, “All right, again.”
She’s just not going to toss up her hands and say, “Get lost! I’m sick of listening to you!”
The Jayhawks hoped they had a real boost at point guard with freshman Angel Goodrich, but she tore her ACL right before the season started. It was a very tough break and a big disappointment, but now KU has reached March and still has at least a glimmer of NCAA Tournament hope.
If KU can beat Iowa State in Ames on Saturday – which, admittedly, is a tall order _ and then win at least one game at the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks will have given the committee something to think about. Their victory over Baylor was the squad’s fourth in a row and second over a ranked team, as KU, now 17-11 and 6-9, beat Iowa State on Feb. 22.
KU’s win Wednesday certainly got the attention of women’s hoops fans nationwide, and if they had not heard of Danielle McCray before then, they’ll look for the name now. And they should. She had a career-high 35 points, along with eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. For the season, she’s averaging 20.0 points (second in the Big 12 to Oklahoma State’s Andrea Riley) and 7.7 rebounds
McCray went to a high school, Olathe East, near where I live. She was a basketball and track standout there, and she’s reshaped her body pretty dramatically in her three seasons at KU. She wasn’t out of shape coming into college, just not as lean and powerful as she is now.
She’s worked hard on defense and trying to make sure she’s not out of position, which was her biggest problem her first two seasons. She’d get into foul trouble, and when she was forced to the bench, it would really hurt KU’s offense.
McCray has improved defensively. And I think this season, she’s elevated herself to an elite level as a versatile and dynamic scorer. She has a textbook 3-point stroke and she’s an excellent free-throw shooter, letting her take full advantage of those times she’s fouled going to the rim.
And the Jayhawks will need the continued confident performance of McCray if they hope for the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000.